Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6006
Cummings, E(dward) E(stlin) 1894–1962
An American poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, Cummings was one of the most innovative poetic stylists of his time. He is best known for his experimentation with typography and punctuation as a means of conveying meaning in poems.
Qualities of adolescence apparent in [Cummings'] early work still exist in his [late] work, both in his subject-matter and its treatment. Technical novelties that startled his early readers and beguiled them into thinking of him as a revolutionary writer have become a part of his regular stock-in-trade. Because time has revealed that they are technical swagger and nothing more, they now annoy the adult reader rather than beguile. It is unfortunate that this is so, because Mr. Cummings frequently reveals genuine poetic qualities.
The cause for his failure to develop into a truly significant poet rather than to continue as an anachronistic survival of an important epoch in American poetry is everywhere manifest in the subject-matter of his verse. He was a sensitive young idealist aware of the beauty of the world of nature about him, but also keenly aware of its ugliness, an ugliness which caused so deep a revulsion in him that he either turned from it completely or, forcing himself to look at it, distorted it out of all perspective. His so-called realistic poems are in essence poems of reverse idealism. Like so many of his generation he took the easy way out and sought to escape by running away. It is one thing to get away from a too-familiar scene in order to see it in better perspective; it is quite another to get away in order to forget the scene. To try to escape by running away is one of the most certain ways to commit moral suicide….
He is too much out of the stream of life for his work to have significance. He tends toward preciosity, and the sense of conscious superiority imparted to the reader becomes intolerable. He reveals himself too much concerned with himself rather than with what he might be able to do about those things to which he objects. He expatriates himself only to assume a disdainful attitude toward those of his fellow-countrymen better able financially to enjoy the pleasures of Europe. Often he gives the impression of a tortured, neurotic soul, afraid to face reality. He attempts to hide this fear beneath an assumed air of superiority. Because he has run away he has given himself no chance to draw strength from that soil which can alone succour him—his native soil.
The reader must not mistake Mr. Cummings for an intellectual poet. He is almost entirely a creature of the senses, who is constantly striving to attain a greater realization of himself through the senses….
In poem after poem Mr. Cummings reveals his sensitive and delicate idealism toward love; but he is afraid of this emotion, giving the reader the impression that he believes it to be unmasculine. He gives himself away, however, in his conscious attempts to reveal himself the strong, assertive male capable of looking at love realistically. The reader is constantly aware of the poet's going against his inner nature and desires. He forces himself to look at sex in all its frankness, but he cannot conceal the effect caused by such an expenditure of will. The result is that too many of his poems end by being surface treatments of love, and reveal all too clearly his essential immaturity….
Mr. Cummings best displays a strong satirical sense in those poems in which he castigates man's general inhumanity and lack of sincerity. He does not object to the way the average person licks the boots of success, but he heartily dislikes hypocrisy. Whether it be a public speaker praising those fallen in war, the blind adoration of the devout before a funeral procession, the treatment of a conscientious objector, the hollow Christianity of the crowd, his outraged senses find expression in bitter satire. At times, this satire is trenchant (Collected Poems, 101, 147-151, 156, 163, 204); at times, arising as it seems to do from a smug superiority (Collected Poems, 244-248, 260, and others), it convinces the reader of the poet's outraged idealism.
James G. Southworth, "E. E. Cummings," in his Some Modern American Poets, Basil Blackwell, 1950, pp. 135-47.
Cummings' poems … are often deliberately simple. His specialty is the renewal of the cliché. He will take a stock poetic subject like spring, young love, or childhood, and by verbal ingenuity, without the irony with which another modern poet would treat such a topic, create a sophisticated modern facsimile of the "naïve" lyricism of Campion or Blake. His forms are also often "stock"; clear away the typographic camouflage and one may reveal a sonnet or other traditional lyric form. Superficially the most shocking of moderns, Cummings is actually one of the least radical….
Cummings' "I" is a sort of enchanted garden apart from the crowd where the self can wall out what it dislikes and hug its uniqueness. His poems thus fall into two parts, "innocent" hymns to the life of the self and rough satires on "mostpeople." With the passage of time the satire has become steadily more nihilistic as Cummings has repeated his comprehensive rejection. On the other hand, the affirmative lyrics have become steadily stronger, as Cummings has moved from fragile poetics full of vague "flowers" and "petals" to a set of well-ordered techniques for eclipsing the prosaic denotations of words and weaving his poem of the coronas of significance that are left. Cummings' content is fixed and narrow and, if one likes, sentimental. His "semantic wit," however, has no match among modern poets. And among so many modern prophets of doom, it is good to have one such jaunty and affirmative figure, even when one soon realizes that the exclusiveness of his Yes and the inclusiveness of his No leave little but mood to choose between him and them, after all.
Stephen E. Whicher, "The Art of Poetry," in Twelve American Poets, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Lars Ahnebrink, Almquist and Wiksell, 1959.
E. E. Cummings persisted so boldly and stubbornly, for a whole career, in his own extraordinary individuality, that it is hard for his readers to believe that he is gone. No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive both to the general and the special reader; since the early twenties, Cummings has been more widely imitated and more easily appreciated than any other modernist poet. His fairy godmother, after giving him several armfuls of sensibility, individuality, and rhetorical skill, finished by saying: "And best of all, everyone will forgive you everything, my son." Just as he persisted in the interests with which he began—his disposition was unchanging—so he persisted in the development of the style with which he began, and worked out the most extraordinary variations, inversions, and extrapolations of the romantic rhetoric of his earliest poems. His rhetoric was as skillful, approached as nearly to the limit of every last possibility, as the acts of the circus performers or burlesque comedians he felt an admiring kinship for. Many a writer has spent his life putting his favorite words in all the places they belong; but how many, like Cummings, have spent their lives putting their favorite words in all the places they don't belong, thus discovering many effects that no one had even realized were possible?
Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
Cummings was never associated with the imagists, but his work exemplifies their principles. The device that particularly links him with those poets who went back to the Chinese in their search for a style is his combination of a private punctuation with a unique typography. It makes some of his poems veritable ideographs…. His closest kinship is with Apollinaire, not the Apollinaire who wrote a lyric about rain in streaming lines, but the poet who manipulated his syllables and his very alphabet so as to surprise the observer into instantaneous grasp of an experience. It is an attempt to do with print what Hopkins tried to do by his peculiarities of diction, to present the "inscape" of things: a cat recovering its balance as it falls, a moon emerging from clouds, a train cutting into a sunset among mountains where a black goat wanders….
Some of Cummings' early lyrics have an Elizabethan decorativeness. His later poems make words as abstract as "am," "if," "because," do duty for seemingly more solid nouns. By this very process, however, he restores life to dying concepts. "Am" implies being at its most responsive, "if" generally means the creeping timidity that kills responsiveness, and "because" the logic of the categorizing mind that destroys what it dissects. Here is a new vocabulary, a kind of imageless metaphor. It is not a device of which other poets readily avail themselves….
Cummings shied away from intellection so nervously that he sometimes stumbled. Fearful of any infringement upon a freedom that he equated with his private enthusiasms, he retreated into an isolation from which he hurled witty obscenities at those who seem to threaten it, making no distinction between real and imaginary enemies. But however big his blind spots, however narrow the compass of his verse, it is a little fountain of delight.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 121-26.
A writer survives in his best work, not in his worst, and at his best Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time: the sonnet "who's most afraid of death? thou"; the sonnet "if i have made, my lady, intricate"; and "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond," with its magnificent and justly famous last line, "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands."
The best two of Cummings' funny poems generate their humor out of bitter melancholy, as do the great clowns and the finest blues. One is the early sonnet that reminds "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" that sometimes above Cambridge the "moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy." The other is the late sonnet that begins "pity this busy monster, man-unkind"….
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Extremes of E. E. Cummings," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 118-22.
Cummings' best poems are usually his love poems and his religious poems, both more often than not written as disguised and more or less disarranged sonnets…. The love poems are generally, after the 1920's, religious in tone and implication, and the religious poems very often take off from the clue provided by a pair of lovers, so that often the two subjects are hardly, if at all, separable. What makes them memorable at their best is the peculiarly Cummingsesque combination of sensuality and feeling for transcendence. Cummings had no less contempt for a "Platonism" that was not "of this earth" than he had for a "realism" that denied wish-dream. Like Emerson before him, he thought he knew that "God IS" because He could be found—sensed, felt—in experience. Cummings wrote some of the finest celebrations of sexual love and of the religious experience of awe and natural piety produced in our century, precisely at a time when it was most unfashionable to write such poems.
By contrast, his poems of social criticism often sound thin and petulant. They are seldom more than amusing, and often not even that. For the most part, they depend upon the stock response and elicit a stock response—not that of Philistia, of course, but that of Bohemia…. They are likely to continue to impress only the very young and the partially read. A poet cannot afford simply to "feel" when writing satiric poems….
[Cummings'] development is in changing attitudes and deepening awareness, a deepened sense of what it meant to be a Transcendental poet, with a corresponding dropping away of defensive-offensive sallies into ideas and criticism. In the last poems, the old devices are used less wastefully, and the old sense of mystery finds more concrete embodiment. Cummings was always at his best when he was "rendering death and forever with each breathing," but in the end he less often depended on pure rhetoric to give content to his abstractions, his "death," "forever," "breathing."…
Cummings' poetry is romantic, intuitive in precept and in method, and rhetorical as opposed to Imagist-Modernist. It is essentially a "poetry of statement," as Wordsworth's was and as Emerson's was—but very complex, personal, ambiguous, and dense statement, at its best, statement which challenges the reader to complete it by first participating in the making of it and then carrying it on in himself, as his own, the gift to his self of another self. New Critical techniques of analysis do not work with such verse. There is nothing that literary positivism can get hold of—just Emersonian "Primary intuitions" and despised rhetoric to help their transfer. No wonder all the New Critics ignored Cummings for thirty years, except Blackmur, who damned him for not writing the way Ransom and Eliot had taught poets to write, for using general instead of specific words, for being, in short, a "Romantic" poet instead of a Modernist.
Whether Cummings is a "major poet" or not, I should not like to venture even a guess. But … he is a poet to cherish and reread….
Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 511-25.
[Perhaps] the best existing introduction to Cummings' poetry is his own i: six nonlectures. Certainly one comes from it with a heightened respect for both the Cummings rhetoric and the poetry. One will not forget in reading the book that it is the work of one of the greatest lyric poets in our langauge; it is a master's examination of himself and his writing, done when he was over sixty years old. And this is the most exciting possible kind of book….
Allied to [the] celebration of the individual human spirit are Cummings' apparent antipatriotism and his apparent anti-intellectualism, which are large themes of i. Both are signs of fundamental affirmations. The apparent antipatriotism is a goad to a higher notion of self than is usual, hence a goad, as well, to a higher sense of the ends of freedom. The apparent anti-intellectualism is basically an affirmation of the mystery of things which Cummings believes to be more compatible with "feeling" than with knowing, supposing the latter activity to be a kind of "measuring" that excludes love. At heart, the quarrels of Cummings are a resistance to the small minds of every kind, political, scientific, philosophical, and literary, who insist on limiting the real and the true to what they think they know or can respond to. As a preventive to this kind of limitation, Cummings is directly opposed to letting us rest in what we believe we know; and this is the key to the rhetorical function of his famous language.
Resisting every kind of compromise and scornful of literary tyranny, Cummings' work contains two kinds of purity, one of art and one of the heart. The first is signified by his heroic unconcern for tyrants (such as money, "Mostpeople," various isms, and the laws of inertia as they apply to literature); the second, by the constant compassion in what he makes. The two together have always distinguished him….
Generally we may say that Cummings' typographical inventions are instruments for controlling the evocation of the poem in the mind of the reader; they are means of mitigating the temporal necessities of language with its falsification of the different, temporal rhythms of experience itself. Cummings is a painter, of course, and most of his poems are two things, auditory art and visual art, nonrepresentational pictures whose appearance on the page is essential to the artist's intention. (His correspondence with his publishers confirms this.) There is, typically, an intimate connection between the poem's appearance and the proper control of reading rate, emotional evocation, and aesthetic inflection. Indeed, one has the sense, reading these "picture poems" (his phrase) aloud, that one is translating inadequately from one language to another, with proportionate loss to the mere listener. This is an especially striking realization when one remembers that Cummings himself read his poems memorably, indeed read his own work better than any other living poet. One wonders what the greatness would be if he could hear in Cummings' voice what is added in the eye….
The mentality of Cummings not only takes us back to the Pythagoreans and their concern with the numerical roots of language; it takes us, more than that of any other American poet, forward to the Existentialists, with their concern for catching the quality of feeling in the subject as something of greater "authenticity" than the quality of intelligibility in the object. Cummings is a scientist of the affect, a doctor of the person. He also takes us immediately, more than any other American poet except Whitman, to the idiom and subject-matter concerns of the so-called beat generation poets. The beat generation is closer to the Village mode of Cummings than to the farming of Robert Frost, the insurance selling of Wallace Stevens, the librarianship of Marianne Moore, the doctoring of W. C. Williams, the banking and editing of Eliot, or whatever it was he did, of Pound. The celebration of the body in Cummings (in such a poem as "i like my body" …) is superior to that in the litanies of Allen Ginsberg (for example, "Footnote to Howl"). Cummings is the least Manichaean of all the good twentieth-century poets, English and American. At the same time, the vocabulary, power of shock, and apparent antipatriotism of such a poem as "i sing of Olaf glad and big" show him peer to the beat generation in these matters, and he is far their superior in craft….
Cummings is the most provocative, the most humane, the most inventive, the funniest, and the least understood. When Yvor Winters wrote that Cummings "understands little about poetry," he missed the point. It is not Cummings' job to understand poetry; it's his job to write it; and it is up to the critics to understand and to derive whatever new machinery they need to talk about the poems; for Cummings—cockatoo, organ-grinder, lover—is himself a father whom a whole generation of poets have already taken to themselves. Hard as he is to imitate, he has led them naturally to look for their own voices.
John Logan, "The Organ-Grinder and the Cockatoo: An Introduction to E. E. Cummings," in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, edited by Jerome Mazzaro (copyright © 1970 by the David McKay Co. Inc.; used with permission of the publishers), McKay, 1970, pp. 249-71.
["We"], meaning [Cummings'] generation, were [for him] reckless persons who liked to accept a challenge, and "we" sometimes gambled with death simply "for fun" and to reaffirm our joy in being alive. That is surely a theme or feeling that pervaded the 1920's; an adolescent feeling, if you will—Cummings makes that concession to critics—but one to which he looked back in the 1950's with a continuing sense of we-ness.
The 1920's had other favorite themes and one is amazed, in rereading his early work, to find how often Cummings expressed them. Of course he was a lyric poet in the bad-boy tradition, broadly speaking, of Catullus and Villon and Verlaine. Of course he kept returning to the standard lyrical subjects of love, death, April, and the special quality of a moment. But traditional as he was on one side of his work, and determinedly unique on another, he was also a man of his generation. Much oftener than one might expect, he said what other young writers were saying at the time, or would soon be saying, and he usually said it with more ingenuity and morning freshness….
There is, in fact, almost every theme that was to be widely treated by new writers in the 1920's, except for Hemingway's theme of giving and accepting death, and Fitzgerald's theme of the betrayed suitor for the very soul of money. Cummings spoke of money not often and then with the disdain of a barefoot friar. Besides the themes he treated, his poems embody various attitudes that lay behind them: the passion for reckless experiment in life and art, the feeling that a writer's duty was to be unique, and the simple determination to enjoy each moment and to make the most of having been born. In spite of his aloofness, it is no wonder at all that the rebel writers had come to regard him as an indispensable spokesman for their cause….
He wrote twelve books of poetry, including one that appeared after his death (73 poems, 1963), but not including collected or selected works. The books contain 770 poems in all, an impressive output for a lyric poet and one recalling that of another New Englander, Emily Dickinson. Most of the poems are as short as hers, with perhaps one-fourth of them variations on the traditional fourteen-liner. After the early romantic pieces in Tulips and Chimneys, Cummings never ventured again into longer forms. Not all the poems are on the same level, and some of the more ingenious ones remind me that there is a drawer in our house full of kitchen gadgets made of stamped tin and wire, all vastly ingenious—U. S. patent applied for—but many of them unworkable and most of them seldom used. Cummings's inventions, too, are sometimes gimcrack and wasted, but the best of them have enriched the common language. The best of his lyrics, early and late, and not a few of the sonnets—more, it seems to me, on each rereading—have a sweep and music and underlying simplicity that make them hard to forget. And where does he stand among the poets of our time? He suffers from comparison with those who built on a larger scale—Eliot, Aiken, Crane, Auden among others—but still he is unsurpassed in his special field, one of the masters.
Malcolm Cowley, "Cummings: One Man Alone," in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, pp. 332-54.
The truth is that Cummings often seems awfully unfashionable. He celebrates and affirms. He cherishes "mystery," one of his very favorite words, and spring and flowers. He prays that his heart be always open to little things, and he gives thanks to God for the grace of each amazing day. He tells us in his i: six nonlectures that he loved his parents and that they loved him—how out of step with the times is this?—and tells us that he considers himself no worthy specimen of the so-called lost generation. He insists on individuality. Rather than puzzle over good and evil, he seems to assume that we all know, if we allow our feelings full play, what is right and what is wrong. While Wallace Stevens could say that we need our minds to defend us, Cummings often seems to trust the beneficence of pure emotional Being…. It is difficult to know what to make of Cummings. Or is it? You know that old adage: if it has feathers like a duck and waddles like a duck and sounds like a duck and eats what a duck eats, it may very well be a duck. Cummings is a Transcendentalist….
We cannot charge a Transcendentalist with unearned joy or sudden irrationality any more than we can charge a mystic. Cummings' transcendentalism explains his poems' tendencies to see society as being in conspiracy against its members, their celebrations of youth and the noble savage like Olaf who only knows that there are some things he will not eat. Cummings' transcendentalism explains his unconcern for consistency, his glorification of intuition, his optimism, even the undercurrent of satirical instruction….
William Heyen, "In Consideration of Cummings," in Southern Humanities Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 131-42.
The mystery of e. e. cummings's great aborted talent is not solved, only deepened, by his Complete Poems. His brave quixotry, still proclaiming itself in his 1968 volume as it had forty-five years earlier in Tulips and Chimneys, has made him one of the poster gurus of a new generation: "one's not half two. It's two are halves of one," says the motto shining poignantly on a brilliant yellow-orange background, with a single flower as shy adornment of this revealed truth. In fact, cummings's first and last lines are nearly always, as in this case, his memorable ones, and most of his poems sag in the middle. While we all go round remembering "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands," or "the single secret will still be man," or "there's a hell of a good universe next door, let's go," we rarely recall what led up to these declarations. Something is wrong with the relation of parts to wholes in cummings: we do not receive, as Coleridge thought we should, "such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part." Cummings was capable of stunning parts, and these parts glitter on the page like sparklers, float up like scraps of hurdy-gurdy music—but the sparks don't organize into constellations, the music falls apart into notes and remains unorchestrated….
Cummings seems never to have felt any misgivings about his creed—or, if he felt them, he only raised his voice more defiantly in his utopian affirmations. The affirmations become, in the Complete Poems, ever more stereotyped, until one could write a cummings poem oneself simply by juggling the cummings syntax and the cummings counters: young, new, yes, frail, love, bright, dream, doom, flower, moon, small, deep, touch, least, sweet, brief, guess, kiss, lost, and on and on and on.
The murderous devaluation of intellect in cummings has yet to be explained. Perhaps it comes from seeing all those Cambridge ladies living in furnished souls; perhaps intellect stood in cummings's mind for his parents. In any case, a guerilla war against intellect is being conducted almost perversely all through the Complete Poems….
Cummings protests so much (far more than Wordsworth ever did) that nature is better than mind that the brain and the mind in his poetry take on sinister potential. His willed atrophy of both is matter for regret, especially since his satiric talent was the product of a sharp malicious intellect enjoying its own precision. If cummings had not been so afraid of what are now called "negative feelings," we might have had less slush about love and april and more wit….
Early in the Complete Poems two cummings-selves elbow each other for room: the cummings who sketches, with brilliant economy, low-life Paris—madams, whores, sailors, bars, sidewalks; and then there is the cummings, inheritor of the troubadours, who sings ballades of love. In many of the poems of Tulips and Chimneys (1923) cummings allows both voices a say, but somehow, in later years, a disjunction took place, and the pretty and the miserable ceased to communicate with each other in cummings's verse. His delighted humor (visible in poems like "my sweet old etcetera" and "nobody loses all the time") thinned mysteriously; his dancing rhythms ("anyone lived in a pretty how town") were given less and less play; his caprices of letter-jokes became less joyous and more contrived; his satire became uglier (especially on women); and only the dogged sentimentality remained, spreading like a proliferating growth until it crowded out the rest, pretending its name was love and joy when its name really was fear of all that the earlier self had justly tried to include. The final dwarf of cummings is a disappointment to American letters. He remains a poet who is best represented by his anthologized self—by olaf glad and big, by the little lame balloon-man, by uncle sol, by the little couple on the wedding-cake, by ignorance tobogganing into know and trudging up to ignorance again. Cummings was happiest in ignorance, even though he was shy of saying so in his own voice, and for all his sonnets on sensitive love, he had a hankering after the know-nothing, the gross, and the violent.
Helen Vendler, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, pp. 412-18.
The odd look on the page of E. E. Cummings's poems is best understood as an attempt to apply the theory of the Symbolists to particles smaller than the traditional elements of poetry. Like his Symbolist predecessors and modernist contemporaries, Cummings will jam words into novel contexts so that peripheral or buried possibilities are forced into prominence. He will juxtapose heterogeneous elements without providing the trope that yokes them together. He will violate the habits of English syntax so that semantic units can float free of any grammatical setting that might anchor them to single meanings. He will use adverbs as nouns, prepositions as adjectives and articles as verbs. He knows all the devices that for a long time now have led the ordinary reader by his expectations to where the pie will hit him squarely in the face. Cummings said that he could express his theory of technique in 15 words, "by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. 'Would you hit a woman with a child—No, I'd hit her with a brick'."
But Cummings also has his own special devices, mostly typographical. In his typographical extravaganzas everything the mind can isolate for inspection is significant, down to the size of the letters and the shape of the spaces around them. He has densified, so to speak, the formal properties of poetic meaning, as a mathematician might densify infinity for us by pointing out that between any two of the infinite series of whole numbers there is an infinite number of fractions. Cummings rescued typography from the confinements of conventional usage and thereby multiplied the means through which poets can construct forms, communicate ideas and violate conventions. It is his major achievement and one of which he was justly proud: "It is a supreme pleasure to have done something FIRST," he wrote his father in 1920 about the placement of a comma….
[The] traces in Cummings's poems of his own individuality, which was often petty and smug, are not the main source of their appeal. The appeal, for me at least, lies rather in traces of something else, of that mysterious delight humans take in making and watching bravura displays of dexterity, of an exacting skill that triumphs neatly over reluctant words and recalcitrant matter….
His self-confidence, his complacency even, was such as to inspire awe. Unlike his modernist contemporaries, who also took pains, Cummings seems never to have doubted the reality of words or the worth of poetry or the truth of his perceptions or the adequacy of his powers. He wrote no poems that cancel themselves out, that demonstrate the impossibility of poetry. Among modernist poets, Cummings is unique for the extent of his appeal to readers who have no professional interest in poetry. One reason may be the absence in his poetry of an informing anxiety about itself.
He suffered from none of the anxieties that curse and blast poets who think they have something urgent to say but no medium ready at hand through which to say it. Cummings did not seek new techniques so that he might express new perceptions or new ideas, but to highlight the curves of his personal bent—"so far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality." His poetry, in any case, is not notable for the freshness of his perceptions or the novelty of his ideas. On a quick count, I would say that the total body of his verse contains seven ideas, at least four of which are in Wordsworth and two in Donne. One of his favorite ideas was that ideas are bad for you…. Intellectually speaking, Cummings was a case of arrested development. He was a brilliant 20-year-old, but he remained merely precocious to the end of his life. That may be one more source of his appeal….
His carnal, as opposed to his platonic, love poems strike me as on the whole Cummings's best. In these poems he allows himself to feel what he feels rather than what he thinks he should feel. For once, he does not strike attitudes. He has his eye on the subject rather than on himself. His carnal love poems, I am happy to say, violate most local community standards.
George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1973, pp. 17-18.
"Cummingsese" can work against Cummings. In the first place, the typography of it is forbidding; it creates a barrier for the reader. It says to him either "I dare you to read this," or "You are really too literal to get what I'm getting at." The reader may take the either and may still have to admit the or. He may, that is, have to lump himself in with the "mostpeople" the poems, Cummings said, are not for.
In the second place, the typography stops the poem, it impairs the movement of the poem, the fluency. This is all the more a disadvantage considering the immediacy Cummings wanted; simultaneity, ironically, checks, even sacrifices, his cherished "Now," "happening." In the third place, such contortion too easily becomes cleverness: look what I can do; a sort of oneupmanship in typing. It smacks somewhat of the cutesywutesy, "hee hee cunnings." In the fourth, fifth, and sixth places, it raises questions: Is individuality simply idiosyncrasy? Is language, so confusing, supposed to be for communication—"fonetty kinglish"? Is this a puzzle or a poem? There are other "places" that can be added to this random list (How does one pronounce it?), but however long the list, always in the final place is the first first-of-all question: Is what is being said worth the time and the trouble it takes to figure out?…
Oneness, the one, the singular, the first person, I/i, the only, the individual, is one of Cummings' favorite themes—practically his unique one. One of his lines clearly declares this recurrent theme and well stands for all in/on one: "there's nothing as something as one"; it has a companion: "we're wonderful one times one." 1 × 1 is one. Along with these, "not/all matterings of mind/equal one violet," makes three, one. So singular a selectivity, a kind of index fingerprint autonomy, naturally prefers selfhood in all things—insists on absolute individuation. Lower case i conspicuously emphasizes ego in a language of conventional I. Language, as everything else, has, in effect, to be invented, created anew. Punctuation has to be repointed—repunctuated. Syntax has to serve individuated meaning. Grammar has to be a new set of rules….
Love, spring, boy and girl (boygirls, girlboys) are his favorite nouns; you, me, priority pronouns. His favorite adverb is Now: he converted it to High Anglican Nounness. Is is his favorite verb: is. Moon is his favorite planet; sun, "arriving truly, faithfully who goes," is a standby for the moon: (O). (Although a poet is "who'll … defend/a sunbeam's architecture with his life.") Dream is an everyday-time event. Heart is—almost nearly—his favorite organ. War is bad. Now who of us would want to take to task so sterling a human being? Not I. Let him type his name low c in heaven Capital H, high C or basso profundo.
John Fandel, "E. E. Cummings," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 7, 1973, pp. 264-66.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support